Jul 22, 2012

Back from Bosnia: Marian Apparitions in Kihebo, Rawanda

I've just returned from a summer retreat in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with five peaceful days spent in the Marian shrine of Medjugorje. Each time I visit this town, I am stunned into silence by the profound and extraordinary peace that pervades the place, a peace so profound and so penetrating that it silences all doubts. An energy this holy cannot be based upon a lie. Still, I spent some time reviewing the many criticisms and accusations about the alleged apparitions still taking place here, and there are signs of contradiction and causes of concern, intermixed with lies and slanders and deliberate obfuscations. Clearly the Blessed Mother, if she is indeed appearing here (as I truly believe) has decided not to make it easy for anyone to reach a judgement about the place - not without considerable prayer and discernment. Which is why I'm with Cardinal Schonborn on this one. If you haven't been here yourself and you haven't subjected the Shrine to your own personal prayerful, interior discernment, then no amount of rational analysis of the pros and cons will do you any good. This is the classic kind of case spoken of by St. Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises. When you are faced with an issue or a problem in which the negative and the positive seem to be weighed almost equally, then you must resort to a careful discernment of spirits, and ask you self when considering the negative and the positive, which gives you the greater peace. Always go with the peace was the advice given by this great 16th century saint. And the peace of Medjugorje is simply too overwhelming to ignore, it pours into the atmosphere from such a profound source of sacredness and imbues the air with grace and holiness.

Nonetheless,  the town itself has become 'honky tonk city' at night, with wild young men roaring about on giant motorcycles, teenage boys zipping by on the sidewalks on their bicycles with no thought to the pedestrians (I was almost run over by two of them who seemed delighted by my alarm), pubs and bars (a few) bustling with patronage, and everyone eating and drinking, chatting and shopping and having a merry time. As I've said before on this blog, it feels very much like a beach resort in Thailand, without the go go bars and prostitutes. I did stop for a beer in the one semi-night club in town, right at the end of the main road leading to the Church. Rock music videos were blaring from the giant LCD screen, the beat of the music thumping and blaring from the giant speakers. However, during the course of half an hour, I noticed that all of the music videos had been carefully selected for their 'appropriate content,' insuring that the usual sexual images of most music videos were screened out. Making such a selection must have been a daunting task. Yet despite the beat and the beers, and the giant Harleys parked on the curb outside, and the burly, tattooed men at the bar, the club seemed quaintly and charmingly innocent.  Someone had clearly intended it as a fun place to be at night for tourists, without in anyway offending the religious tone of the shrine. I was rather amused, actually, and thought it quite wholesome. How many husbands or sons are dragged to Medjugorje by devout wives and mothers and in need of a little harmless but raunchy release (most of the customers in the club were men).

The tackiness and commercialism of the main street seem to be a necessary prop to the shrine, because one can't but be shocked by the contrast of the bustling commerce going on right outside the sanctuary and the extraordinary radiance of holiness that hits you like a primal force once you step into the sanctuary grounds. It's as if an invisible but palpable spiritual wall protects the sanctuary from the worldliness of the street. I've been to many shrines and holy places in my 68 years, among them Assisi, Jerusalem, Fatima and Lourdes, the sacred temples and mountains of Thailand, but I have never experienced anything like the holiness and peace of Medjugorje.

This same 'effect' is also palpable on Apparition Hill. Once you step off the tiny lane crammed with souvenir shops right up to the very edge of the path of ascent, you are immersed in a sea of tranquility and sacredness that I can only compare feebly to the rush of humidity that hits you when you step off the plane in Bangkok, Thailand. It is that strong a force.

On this visit, I managed for the first time to ascend the second holy mountain in the area, Krizevac Mountain (Holy Cross), an arduous ascent made difficult by the numerous stones placed in the pathway to provide a walkway of penance to pilgrims who make the very moving stations of the cross. I started the ascent at 9 in the morning, before the heat of the day and by 10 I was sweating like a pig. I took refuge in some shade and sat on a rock to drink some water, with my cane resting on my knee. As I was sitting there, four very formidable Italian 'peasant' women (for so they appeared to me) came walking down the rock strewn pathway without any canes and with no hesitation. They were all in their 60's at least, skipping from rock to rock like mountain goats with no hesitation and no sign of strain, and not a drop of sweat, as if to say, "Look at us, you sissies. You call this a penance? Piece of cake."

After a few more minutes I reached the summit and approached the giant white concrete Cross at the top. These crosses are found all throughout BosniaCroatia and instill misgivings in those of us who know the history of violent, intolerant Croatian Catholic nationalism and the forced conversion campaigns in the 40's. These horrendous assaults on conscience, approved by both the Vatican and Cardinal Stepanic (though he timidly distanced himself from some of the more extreme manifestations, without condemning the campaigns themselves) resulted in hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Serbs forced to profess allegiance to the Catholic Church and hundreds of thousands more executed in the most brutal fashion - frequently at the hands of Franciscan priests and nuns. These giant crosses do not give off a very holy resonance, in fact they gave me a chill. There is one looming over the tragic town of Mostar some thirty miles away, scene of some of the most violent clashes between Christians and Muslims during the Yugoslav Wars. This is a city almost evenly divided between Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Serbs. What must the Muslims and Serbs think of this symbol of Catholic triumphalism dominating the skyline of their war torn city? There is another equally dominant Cross on the mountain top overlooking the city of Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Adriatic. 

Yet the ascent of Mt. Krizevac felt holy and profound to me, as I meditated at each station of the cross on the horrors of religious violence during the Yugoslav wars. What more fitting subject of meditation could there be in this place? After all, Our Lady first appeared here as "Queen of Peace," and early in the apparitions  she was seen by the children weeping on the hillside and crying out, "Peace, peace." The panoramic views of the surrounding plains and valley were also deeply moving, but I can't say I experienced the same peace that was so evident in the santuary down in the valley below and on Apparition Hill.

Thankfully, a Bosnian man was sitting under a tree at the summit with several ice coolers filled with water, fruit drinks and sodas. I went up to speak with him, but his English was limited. But I was struck by his air of humility and gentleness. The average price of a small bottle of water in the shops was 1 euro, and he was charging only 1.50 for providing this service on top of a very high mountain which lacks any road of ascent. This means he must carry the bottles and the ice upon his back every early morning up an ascent that takes an ordinary person with canes over one hour! The thought is simply staggering. How and why does he do it and why doesn't he charge more? I tried to ask him these questions, suggesting that 2 euros would be considered a very fair price for providing such a necessity at the top of Holy Cross mountain. (There have been numerous stories of heat stroke among the pilgrims, particularly the elderly, in attempting the ascent.) No, no, he said, "For the Madonna, for the Madonna." Now that is penance and sacrifice borne out of love, which makes my own sweaty ascent look like a skip in the park.  He also had a very simple souvenir stand next to his ice chests. I bought a beautiful stone cross from him made from the rocks of Medjugorje - for five euros. And then I began the descent, chastened, humbled, moved.

The owner of the pensione where I stayed, Ana, spoke to me with a sad shake of her head about the profusion of hotels and luxury resorts still being built around Medjugorje, most of it "foreign money". Clearly this has put a strain on her business.  She also spoke of the clan violence which racked the community in the early 90's, when tourist numbers began dwindling and two rival clans fought for control of the tourist trade, resulting in several dozen deaths. At least those were Ana's numbers. When one reads the articles on the subject, particularly from Medjugorje critics, the numbers are put into the hundreds. Not so, said, Ana, only several dozen (which seems horrible enough) and perhaps she has a reason for minimizing the scandal, but she seemed quite certain. Ana charges 20 euros a night for a single room with en suite bathroom, and another 18 euros for full board. She is hardly getting rich off the hostel, which consumes all her time. Clearly another example of service to the Madonna.

I've avoided any comment upon the many wonderful rich graces I received on this trip, but there was one 'revelation' that was providential. Before arriving I had purchased for my kindle reader a copy of Immaculee Ilibagiza's very moving book, Our Lady of Kibeho. The book recounts the now Vatican approved apparitions of the Blessed Mother to three school girls in Rawanda in 1981, the same year the apparitions began in Medugorje. The Kibeho apparitions prophesied in the most graphic manner the horrors of the genocide which would overtake Rawanda fourteen years later. The parallels with Medjugorje are striking, the same Madonna weeping at the horrors about to overtake each community, but I will save my reflections and comparisons for a subsequent post.

I will end with a note of heartfelt gratitude to the Mother of the Lord for having led me once again to the Bosnian shrine of Medjugorje, which has been the source of so many graces and healings in my own life. May I be worthy of such graces and may Mary show me the way I may best serve her in return. 

Hail Mary Full of Grace